Most of us spend a fair amount of time focused on what we’re doing: making a plan for the month or year, writing to-do lists, and, you know, actually doing things, whether for work or play.
But the flip side of doing things is not doing things. And thinking about what you’re not doing is a really powerful way to check in with your priorities and values. But depending on what’s on your mind right now and how you’re feeling, you may hear the question of this post’s title in different ways, all of them valid. So I want to go through some different angles on this question.
The Answer Is Not in Multitasking
Except for a few circumstances in which you really can do two things at once (my favorite is to talk on the phone with a friend while cooking or washing dishes), multitasking is usually a misnomer. It’s really multiswitching from one activity to another.
Rapid task switching provides the brain with stimulation, and so it can be helpful for some people if you have tedious, repetitive tasks that don’t require a lot of deep attention. For tasks requiring full concentration, setting a timer to allow regular breaks is probably a better approach.
As an overall task management strategy, multitasking falls short, since most of us have far more things on our lists and on our minds than could possibly be done in the time we have, even if we were cloned.
So rather than just always adding more to your list, see the question “what are you not doing” as an invitation to explore priorities and choices.
What’s Bothering You?
Is there something that you’re not doing, and you feel bad about it? Maybe it’s something that you need to do and you’ve been putting it off. Maybe you’ve developed some resistance or negative emotion around the task (long-term procrastination will often accrue a kind of emotional residue).
Simply recognizing that you’ve got something nagging at you and causing some emotional disturbance can help you begin to clear it. Try setting a timer for five minutes and just taking one teeny, tiny, step towards doing the dreaded task.
What Could You Let Go Of?
Are there items on your to-do list that keep getting shifted from week to week and never get crossed off? Are you holding on to goals or activities that no longer fit your life?
Making the conscious decision to take something off your list frees up so much energy. Look through your list and see what you could decide to let go of.
Are You Aligned With Your Priorities?
Are your priorities actually reflected in what you’re spending time on? If, for example, creating art, spending time with your family, or developing a strong spiritual connection are meaningful goals for you, then make sure those are things you’re actually doing. It’s easy for our big-picture goals to stay abstract. Figure out some specific activity you could do each week that would contribute to those larger priorities.
Do You Have Enough Not Doing?
Not doing is so important. Not just in terms of sleep and rest, but to have time that isn’t pre-planned or layered with expectations. If you’re feeling like your task lists are running your life, try creating some small pockets of time — even just 15 minutes here, half an hour somewhere else — for simply not doing. If not doing seems too scary, then set aside that pocket of time for play or relaxation. Do whatever feels appealing right then, in the moment.
In order to feel comfortable with whatever you’re doing, you need to feel OK with what you’re not doing. So, not getting things done, for the most part, is a hallmark of optimal productivity!
Only you can decide what the right balance is for you, between doing and not doing. That’s why it’s such a powerful question.